The history or spy bugs and listening devices
The history of spy tech and espionage is fascinating! We all loved our movies and television shows, like James Bond 007 or Get Smart, that featured spies with fancy gadgets like telephones hidden inside of shoes or watches that could listen to people from far away, but the truth is that these TV shows drew inspiration from the secret agent community. These covert listening devices and spy bugs are real things!
Of course, spies didn’t always have the luxury of small, electronic listening devices. Before there were spy bugs, people had to perform that reconnaissance work. This meant that people would have to take disguise and infiltrate an adversary to collect information. Once that information was collected, the spies would need to send that data back to their head office.
These messages were originally sent via encrypted messages. One of the earliest forms of encryption was the Scytale. The Scytale is a simple piece of leather or ribbon with random letters written on it. Once that piece of cloth was wrapped around an object with a certain diameter, it would spell out words across that object.
The Scytale was very limited, though. It could only transport small messages that were only a word or two long. Eventually, a chap by the name of Leon Battista created the Alberti Cipher. This cipher used a dial that you could spin to match one letter or symbol with another. Most people might recognise these as decoder rings.
Another popular early encryption method was the Caesar Cipher. This cipher is like the Alberti Cipher in that secret agents needed to match letters or symbols to other letters to decipher a secret code. The Caesar Cipher was stronger than the Alberti Cipher because it could better randomise those secret keys. The Caesar Cipher could also be stacked. In other words, it could be used multiple times to encode a message.
As humans became better with math, so did encryption algorithms. Today we are more familiar with something like RSA encryption. Newer standards of encryption use prime numbers or more randomised numbers to create encryption that is much harder to break.
Even though humans became very good at being used as listening devices, there was always the issue of transporting secret messages back to the commanders and generals that needed them and vice-versa.
Militaries started to use pigeons to transport messages over long distances. Pigeons were one of the best original spy tools because they could reliably make their way back ‘home’ without being seen or captured. On the off chance that a pigeon was caught, most people couldn’t read secret messages attached to them anyway because of the encryption methods mentioned above.
Later pigeons themselves would become the spy bugs. As early as World War 1, military officials were strapping cameras to pigeons to take pictures overhead. Today, militaries around the world use drones or spy satellites to capture footage, but pigeons were the original spy satellites.
Both World War 1 and 2 fostered a lot of imagination to create spy bugs throughout the world. In 1945, Ambassador Harriman deployed to the USSR by America was given a gift by the Young Pioneer Organization in the Soviet Union. This gift was a metal seal of the United States fixed to a wooden plaque. That seal also happened to be a listening device. It was called ‘The Thing’.
This spy bug was unique for its time. The Thing didn’t require any external power to work, yet it was able to transmit conversations over a short distance. This listening device worked through passive, capacitive electronics. As the device captured sound waves within the Ambassador’s office, the sound would excite, or light up, a coil. When that coil was excited, it would transmit that sound through an antenna and then captured by a nearby receiver. Spies could use this listening device to hear conversations in real-time without being in the same room.
As electronics became better, spy agencies started to create smaller and more sensitive electronics. One of the first long-distance listening devices was a very sensitive microphone attached to a parabolic dish. This was called the electronic ear. It could allow someone to hear a conversation from across a field. Interestingly, that spy tech went on to help create things like hearing aids. Today, an electronic ear can be made for less than £30 with parts from around the house and electronics catalogs. Of course, the home-made version won’t work as well as the ones the spies use.
Technology has only become more advanced. Today when we think of listening devices and spy bugs, we aren’t only referring to devices that capture conversations. Spy bugs also capture images and network data. These devices can be small and built into normal objects like USB cords or network cables. We also have special electronic scanners that can be used to find these listening devices. After all, they are now so small that you would never notice one in the same room as you without help.